As Afghans await the final results of their presidential election, the long-awaited strategic assessment from General Stanley McChrystal, commander of United States and NATO forces in Afghanistan, has also created a stir. Given the sharply rising number of coalition casualties and growing concern about the wisdom of an additional surge of foreign troops into Afghanistan, McChrystal's assessment is being closely scrutinized both in Europe and on Capitol Hill.
Serious debate about the mission in Afghanistan is warranted. Public support for the war is waning and 76 coalition troops were killed in July alone. But skeptics and supporters alike should recognize and support a crucial tenet of McChrystal's assessment: the need to dramatically increase the number and quality of forces in the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP).
From a strategic and financial perspective, the push to bolster the numbers and quality of the Afghan forces makes clear sense. On the strategic level, the coalition simply doesn't have enough troops to satisfy the "clear, hold and build" formula of the counterinsurgency campaign against the Taliban. Earlier this year, the Director of National Intelligence, former Admiral Dennis Blair, told Congress that the Afghan forces were less than one-tenth the size necessary to defend country. And as McChrystal has noted, "The demand and the supply don't line up, even with the new troops that are coming in." The financial equation is equally apparent. In pure dollar terms, the U.S. can field and train 60 Afghans for the price of one deployed American soldier.
Tactics and dollars are important criterion by which to evaluate the proposal; however, the real value of increasing the strength and size of the Afghan forces is less obvious. A successful counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan will require the coalition to protect the civilian population and win their support in the fight against the Taliban. With these goals in mind, strengthening the Afghanistan National Army and Police may represent the single most important aspect of McChyrstal's new strategy.
Why? Because bolstering the Afghan security forces will not only restore trust in coalition forces, but also build Afghans' confidence in the future of the country.
For many years, a counterterrorism-focused strategy in Afghanistan relied heavily on air strikes on Taliban and al Qaeda operatives. All too often, the strikes resulted in large numbers of Afghan civilian casualties. The dominant Afghan perception was that American investigations into the accidental bombings were mere public relations exercises. In a nation driven by conspiracy theory, few Afghans believe that international forces genuinely respect the value of an Afghan life. Many Afghans note, for example, that the US was incredibly efficient and precise in eliminating the Taliban via air strikes immediately after 9/11. They simply cannot fathom how the U.S. can continue "accidentally" to bomb wedding parties and funerals.
Likewise, past security operations required U.S. and NATO troops to enter Afghans' homes in search of weapons, insurgents and contraband. The constant fear that foreign, non-Muslim forces will enter Afghans' private residences engenders disgust and suspicion. Although the U.S. military recently issued new guidelines on this previously standard practice, many public opinion polls continue to show that Afghans believe that only coalition forces from Turkey should be permitted to search their homes.
Increasing the number and quality of Afghan security forces will provide a recognizable signal to Afghans that the U.S. and NATO genuinely want a durable and lasting peace in the country. With more and better Afghan troops on the ground, coalition forces will conduct fewer air strikes and possibly collect more reliable targeting intelligence. A professional, multi-ethnic military would put an Afghan face on the fight against Taliban insurgents and dramatically ease concerns about an occupying foreign force. Perhaps most importantly, the new and better force would build a sense of national pride and confidence that Afghanistan will eventually operate independent of coalition forces.
Training and building the larger force will not be easy. Many in the current security force -- and the Afghan National Police in particular -- are corrupt and ineffective. Although a larger Afghan force is comparatively cheap by American standards, Afghanistan will need to find reliable funds to support the new force. Most experts believe that the Afghan military budget will need to increase from $365 million per year to more than $2 billion, nearly twice the current budget for the entire Afghan government.
The campaign for Afghan hearts and minds is the single most important theme of General McChrystal's counterinsurgency strategy. Demonstrating confidence in the Afghan people by strengthening their own security forces will bring the coalition closer to the most important strategic objective: Exiting a stable and secure Afghanistan.